March 11, 2016
It was 20 years ago when a young homicide detective learned a bitter lesson about gangsters, murders and the consequences of cutting corners.
Which is you can never go off half-cocked at a cocky crook, particularly one as cocky as Alphonse John Gangitano, a megalomaniac who described himself as a “gentleman, professional punter, property developer and marketing manager”.
Detective Inspector Andrew Gustke speaks with the media after human remains were found in Thomastown as part of the investigation into the disappearance of Terrence Blewitt. Photo: Justin McManus
It was April 1995 and Andrew Gustke was questioning Gangitano over the murder two months earlier of standover man Greg Workman – shot eight times outside an East St Kilda party.
The image-conscious Gangitano (known as the Black Prince of Lygon Street) insisted on keeping his sunglasses on even inside the interview room. It was the third time he had been questioned and he was confident this was just another fishing expedition.
Archaeologists joined the police search for the remains of Terrence Blewitt. Photo: Justin McManus
What he didn’t know was that two sisters who had been at the party had made statements naming Gangitano as the killer.
Which meant it should have been an open and shut case; except it wasn’t.
The key witnesses were treated appallingly in police protection and were eventually persuaded by sources close to Al to recant. They refused to testify and Gangitano paid for their timely overseas holiday.
Without their testimony police were forced to drop the case and were presented with a $69,975.35 legal bill from the suspect’s defence team.
Police say they’ve found the remains of career criminal Terrence Blewitt.
“He had been an active criminal for 20 years and we should have had enough to convict him of murder,” Gustke says.
He says Gangitano cultivated the Hollywood gangster image but “take away that charade and he was nothing but a thug”.
(He also had a thin skin, suing me for stupidly saying on radio that he had, “a brain the size of a flea and the genitalia to match”.) He was shot dead in January 1998 before the matter progressed to court.
The Workman stuff-up still burns Gustke who is determined it will not happen again. Nothing, he says, can be taken for granted when dealing with high-level gangsters.
Now the Detective Inspector heading the Purana taskforce he knows that charging an organised crime figure is just the start of a long legal battle.
Purana was formed in 2003 in response to the Underbelly gangland murders that saw crooks such as Carl Williams, Andrew Veniamin and Jason Moran become household names. (Their fame came at a cost as all three ended up murdered).
Today Purana is trying to get in front of the game by identifying the next generation of crooks before they build similar underworld power bases.
Gustke spent three years in counter terrorism, where the aim is to disrupt before an attack rather than investigate the aftermath.
But there are old cases from the Underbelly days that the squad revisits – such as the murder of Graham Kinniburgh, shot dead outside his Kew home in December 2003.
Purana detectives have charged Stephen John Asling with the murder and allege he, along with the notorious Terrence Blewitt, were contracted to kill Kinniburgh.
Detectives have dug up new evidence, which led them to dig up Blewitt, buried in a Thomastown scrapyard. Forensic tests indicate he was shot dead.
It would be wise for Asling to negotiate a bulk fee for his lawyers, as it is fair to say he remains a subject of much interest to Purana detectives and also interstate investigators looking at another unsolved matter.
While he won’t discuss any case before the courts Gustke is keen to pass on a general message through the pages of Naked City (voted the gangsters’ column of choice 2010-15). “Time can bring you down and we are not going away.”
Which brings us to the murder of Mad Richard Mladenich who was shot dead about 3am on May 16, 2000, at the seedy Esquire Hotel in St Kilda. Witness said the gunman wore sunglasses (which confirms it is apparently illegal to appear in public without shades if you are a gangster or a Test cricketer).
While Mad Richard is very much dead the case is very much alive with Purana detectives believing a positive outcome is a real possibility.
The suspect is a gangster who has grown his wealth from next to nothing when he walked out of jail two years ago to nearly $9 million.
The theory is that drug dealer turned killer Carl Williams was the getaway driver and so when Carl tried to do a deal with police to give evidence into the murders of Christine and Terence Hodson (killed four years to the day after Mad Richard), the shady gangster in the shades became decidedly nervous.
He felt if Carl was getting talkative he might start chatting about Mladenich. And that is why, police suspect, Williams was murdered in Barwon prison in April 2010.
Perhaps if Williams had been asked to make a statement on Mad Richard he would have obliged. But guess what? He wasn’t and the opportunity went begging.
But Mr Shades shouldn’t get too cocky as he is about to get caught between a rock and a hard place. Flat out shooting people in road rage attacks, buying investment properties and organising murders, he has failed to take out Australian citizenship. Which means he is on a list to be chucked out of the country. And so his next pair of designer sunglasses may be bought at the duty free shop at Melbourne Airport.
Everyone loves to talk about proactive policing but for every one cop working on organised crime there are 100 chasing volume crimes such as burglaries and car thefts.
On pure figures the theft of a second-hand car is the same as seizing a kilogram of ice, as both are listed as a single crime.
But consider this. A kilo of ice broken down to street level produces 100,000 street hits with a retail value of $5 million.
If just half that is funded through low level thefts and considering that stolen property has to be sold at a massive discount then it is reasonable to suggest that $10 million is added to our crime bill per kilo of ice. And the big boys talk of moving tonnes, not kilos, to fill our insatiable appetite for the stuff.
Gustke argues that if groups such as Purana are successful there will be a flow-on effect on general crime rates.
“It is about treating the cause and not the symptom.”
That is the policy he hopes will work as a team in the taskforce starts investigating the massive increase in firearms trafficking, which has resulted with someone in the drug world getting shot in Melbourne every few days.
Clearly there is a syndicate importing hundreds of weapons, probably through the docks, while others are using the Dark Web to have guns posted to them.
So catch the importers and the number of shootings should drop. It is simple maths (although most crooks think Algebra is an African country).
If Gustke had his way, we would set up international taskforces in feeder countries to try and seize drugs before they left for Australia.
“Authorities are flat out looking at what is coming into their country. If we had a presence in key harbours we would save ourselves millions in investigations and prosecutions.”
While the public is well aware of the squad’s impressive body of work some within prisons are not big Purana fans, as this jail ditty would suggest.
F—–g Purana Squad.
You’s are a f—–g joke,
Why pick on us?
We’re nothing but good blokes.
We know you get jealous,
Of our girls and our cars,
Instead of living your lives,
You keep trying to live ours.
So before I curse your family,
And pray to God you all die,
I hope it’s clear that you are the animals,
And we’re the good guys.
It is no secret that Mick Gatto, the industrial mediator with a colourful past, has been the subject of many and varied Purana investigations.
So Gatto would have hardly been surprised when Gustke, along with Purana detectives and investigators from a myriad law enforcement agencies last month turned up to search his Lower Plenty and Mt Martha homes.
What would have been a surprise is they came armed with a snazzy X-ray machine that can look inside walls for secret hidey-holes used to secure items from unwanted scrutiny.
The raid was conducted after someone paid for a slap-up meal at Mornington’s Royal Hotel with three counterfeit $100 notes. (The Liverwurst pate on a warm baguette is a favourite with locals.)
The notes were discovered some time after Mick and his party left following their Friday dinner – a coincidence that no doubt has left Gatto perplexed. (It would be hardly surprising if he paid cash as the Tax Department has frozen his credit cards after hitting him with a $10 million bill.)
It is a matter of record that police claim to have found a firearm and about $80,000 (real) cash at the Lower Plenty address.
As always Gatto was the perfect host for the raiding party, even if they were uninvited guests.
He offered to make them coffee (from imported beans as there is no instant brew at Chateau Gatto).
“I made sure I didn’t have one,” Gustke says.
– John Silvester